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An anonymous narrator pieces together ""the story of my friend, Christopher Iles""--from the 1960s to the 1980s, from London to Prague and back again--in a wry, somber, half-satisfying arrangement of letters, vignettes, digressions, documents, and fragmented flashbacks. This not-so-fabulous Englishman, journalist Christopher, was briefly famous as a radical bohemian back in mid-'60s London--when his grand passion was Czech beauty Milena. But Milena was drawn home to Czechoslovakia--and an enigmatic death--by 1968's Prague Spring; Christopher then got swallowed up by ""bourgeois society,"" complete with wife (unfaithful), daughters (adorable), and hack-work writing (PR). And, through the 1970s, Christopher's sole connection to his idealistic past has been his quirky correspondence with Milena's father Peter, a Prague bookseller who is bravely (if non-politically) Anglophile in his Literary tastes. As the novel begins, then, circa 1982, Christopher is on his way to Vienna for a long-awaited rendezvous with soulmate Peter--recalling their 15-year pen-pal friendship, becoming more than a little intrigued by a flashy fellow traveler named Dr. Kuhn. Indeed, when Peter fails to show up for the Vienna meeting, Christopher returns to London determined to write a blockbuster book about capitalist profiteer Kuhn. (""In my mind,"" the narrator interjects, ""Kuhn stands for post-war Europe."") But finally, after the Kuhn interlude becomes a disappointing dead end (for both hero and reader), Christopher journeys at long last to Prague itself--where he learns the secret of his beloved pen-pal, hears the true story of Milena's freedom-fighter death in 1968, falls a little bit in love with Milena's young half-sister. . .and returns to the West with ""no more hope, only memory,"" moved to tears by ""his own vulnerability."" McCrum (In the Secret State, A Loss of Heart) works hard at presenting Christopher as ""a man caught in a time-warp,' the embodiment of '60s commitment gone flat and sour. (Pop-song lyrics of the period are sprinkled throughout.) And there are intriguing angles here and there in the sketches of Czech literary/political underground life. Ultimately, however, this crisply styled assemblage is neither absorbing as a character study nor compelling as a thematic collage--while the self-conscious efforts at narrative gamesmanship (reminiscent of D.M. Thomas and Joan Didion's Democracy) are more distracting than beguiling.

Pub Date: June 14th, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin